Are we entering an age of discouragement?
The evidence is compelling. A Statcan poll showed that the percentage of Canadians who viewed the future optimistically has dropped from 75 per cent in 2016 to 64 per cent today. On one level, it’s not surprising. The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted our lives dramatically; it has isolated us and still poses a threat. Climate change threatens life as we know it, and is causing hardship across Canada and the world. War rages in several nations, and we see the suffering it causes in nightly newscasts. Paying the bills has become tougher for many people due to rising prices. Our nation seems more fractured politically than ever. All in all, a lot seems to be going against us.
That mood of discouragement can also be seen in Ontario’s recent provincial election, with its shockingly low voter turnout rate of only 43 per cent. In some parts of our diocese, barely more than one person in three participated in this basic exercise of our communal life. If you don’t believe that government – any government – can take positive action to deal with the challenges we face, then why bother voting?
On a personal level, this mood of discouragement can filter down from the broader society to affect each of us as individuals.
The fact is, discouragement and disappointment are a part of life, of our human experience. We need to acknowledge that. Jesus and his disciples certainly experienced a lot of discouragement in their lives. Jesus was burdened over people’s failure to repent and turn to God. In his final hours before being arrested, he cried out, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death” (Mark 14:34).
How can we respond to discouragement? Part of the answer is in how we see people, how we regard them. As Ronald Rolheiser notes in his book, Against an Infinite Horizon: The Finger of God in Our Everyday Lives, “Faith is a way of seeing things. It is meant to change our eyesight, to take the reality of our lives… and set these against the horizon of the eternal and the infinite. What faith does is give us a double vision: When we have the eye of faith, we see a certain divine glow shimmering within the ordinary.”
If we only look at people from a human point of view, then it’s all too easy for the human flaws we have, and that so often come into play, to dominate our emotions. That can lead to discouragement.
The apostle Paul wrote to the Church in Corinth that we can see everyone as God sees them. If anyone is in Christ, they are new and embraced by God. Paul urges us to become “ambassadors for Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:20).
What an intriguing invitation! What could it mean in practice? An ambassador works for positive outcomes, to bring people together and to make reconciliation a reality. An ambassador works to make real the famous Quaker belief that “there is that of God in everyone.” That belief can strengthen our commitment to realize how we all belong to one another and can lift each other up – including when we’re feeling discouraged. In my experience, there’s a huge difference between feeling discouraged and alone, as opposed to knowing that people are standing with me as I struggle with discouragement.
I teach memoir classes, and in her powerful memoir, Run Towards the Danger, actor and director Sarah Polley outlined that as an anxious expectant mother with a high-risk pregnancy, she joined a support group with other pregnant women. At first, they all seemed so different from each other. Yet they all shared the same fears, and some faced incredible challenges in their lives. Realizing this made a big difference for Polley. The surface differences melted away. It helped her deal with her own situation.
Yes, the challenges we face as a society and as individuals can seem daunting. But when we fail to raise our voices to point out that by acting together we can make a positive difference, we only deepen the forces of pessimism and disenchantment. And God is with us, through it all. As the Iona Abbey Worship Book says, “God is present in the darkness before dawn; in the waiting and uncertainty where fear and courage join hands.”